The Mole Chronicles - Book II: The Gate

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At a tea stall on one of the stations where the local stops on my mile ride back home, the owner has installed fountain Pepsi. There are three drinks, three colors to choose from: burnt-brown Pepsi, suspiciously-orange Mirinda and clear 7up.

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We have no intention of missing our train. Each time we get off, our varying co-passengers holler to our disappearing backs.

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You forgot your bag. What stunts you people do, huh? The women purse their lips in censure. One woman says we should send this idea to Pepsi for them to make a TV commercial. She says we might get paid a lot of money because Pepsi is a rich company looking for original ideas and this one sure looks unique. What if something bad happens, like an accident? When he does it the first time, we are too surprised to react, aware that our bags are still in the local and someone is calling out from the train, reminding us that our bags are still in the local.

We leave empty-handed. The next day, the effervescence rises only after the chhota Gandhi is handed to the owner. The train arriving on platform number three is a coach, fast local for Borivali.

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This local will not stop between Bombay Central, Dadar, Bandra…. Information about locals arriving and departing on different platforms is announced twice, in three different languages, first Marathi, then Hindi and finally in English. There are times when I return in the evenings when the poking and cussing is worse. The same women, who go to Churchgate in the morning, travel back in the evening but at the end of the day they are desperate to get home in a way they are never frantic about getting to work.

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It is understandable for women to be a few minutes late for office—they have lunches to pack, parents-in-law to feed—but there is no excuse for them to run behind when returning home. Women, it seems, are conditioned to feel duty-bound to return home as soon as possible; it is a pre-requisite. The black-haired heads in Churchgate in the evening loom more menacingly than at Borivali in the morning. The sound from the PA system booms and crashes against the enormous concrete pillars and thousands of tired bodies waiting to get home.

Churchgate is a huge-domed station with a cavernous opening on one side. Several halogen lights of the station seem like countless eyes in the face of a glowering ogre. The echo from the PA system becomes the rumbling reverberation of the angry beast. The train arriving on platform number two is a nine-coach, slow local for Borivali. This local will stop…. Doe-eyes, olive skins, svelte figures in elegant garb push and cuss for 45 seconds before the train comes to a halt.

Fat women defy locomotive laws governing the speed and dexterity of the sluggish and lunge into the local. Perhaps natural selection has already done a cleansing; what I see around me are the fittest women in the city with the fastest reflexes. The men are nonchalant in the evening. They meet friends; go out for a drink. I know some who work late to avoid the rush hour altogether, reaching home three hours after their wives even though the work day ended at the same time for both of them.

This local will stop at all stations. Gents are requested not to….

Once the women have taken their seats and standing spots, others enter; those who sell the evening news rags in different languages, who sell snacks and the latest gossip magazines. Wares are thrust under chins and pitched in loud voices. Middaymiddaymidday, newspaper midday Garam garam samosa Peanuts for time pass. Some women have already dozed off before the local is out of Churchgate.

They will be shaken awake several times and asked in sign language —a minimal shake of the right hand, horizontal and palm-side up— Where you getting off? The dreamer will feign irritation and reply in the same language—a dismissive gesture with the right hand— Last. Sometimes the questioner will strike lucky because the dreamer is getting off before, much before, the final stop.

Then she will smile at the seated woman and point her index finger, first at herself and then at the woman, swinging her head like a dancer all the while— give me the seat when you leave it. Along the middle stations, women get off and new passengers get in. In 12 seconds odd women get off the local and a similar number climbs in to take their place. In the face of tremendous, equal, opposite force, five to six seconds are lost; the deadlock breaks only because desperate wivesmothersdaughtersinlaw have to get off at that station and they push like they would during labor.

I crane my neck; the armpits are nauseating. When I look up, a print ad on the interior metal wall catches my eye. The crowded second class makes me step into the ladies first class compartment. When I look up, a man in the adjoining compartment is leering at me. He must have been the person I dimly registered running for the local after it had already picked up speed.

I change my seat and sit with my back facing him, ready to pore into the book.

The Mole Chronicles - Book II: The Gate

He starts calling out obscenities to get my attention. And then I almost jump in my seat and reflexively turn around. The man is pulling violently at a crack in the mesh to widen the gap. For a moment our eyes meet.

He wants me to understand what he is doing. The next station is seven minutes away. What does he think he is going to accomplish in seven minutes?

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Ironically, the metal wall I share with the ladies second class compartment is completely sealed; no windows or wire meshes between us. After all no one can enter my compartment to investigate.

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The floor of the compartments is more than five feet above ground and the compartments are not interconnected. I sit with my back to him. The local is approaching Santacruz station. Less than six minutes before it stops at Andheri. It seems as if he is crashing against the mesh using his whole weight. The local is swaying slightly because of its speed.

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How can he jump like this and still keep his balance? Every time he heaves himself against the mesh, I feel my heart will pound out of my chest. Why did I take this stupid compartment? I invited this. Just because I wanted to read 20 dumb pages. And then a dull thud. As the tracks change direction, curve slightly, the speeding local lurches a little more. My heart beat is louder than noise of the train but I hear him groan and curse.

He is drunk.